This is the story of Lee “Stump” Kelley my good friend and neighbor. A truly amazing man, he died as he lived, fighting all the way. I was honored to care for him during his last few weeks, painful though they were. Although we were a generation apart, we were banded brothers of sorts. He, a frogman from World War II. Me, a river rat from Vietnam.
For ten years we went to dinner every Monday, and invariably our waitress would ask if we were father and son. Mainly because we both shaved our heads, sported moustaches, and had similar facial features. Lee would wink and say, “Nah, he’s just my little brother.” Even though he had some twenty plus years on me and I was a full head taller.
At seventeen Lee enlisted in the Navy shortly after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. When he completed his frogman training he served in amphibious combat operations from Pelileiu to Corregidor, and on through Okinawa, some of the bloodiest actions of his war. Blowing up obstructions all over the Pacific, he and his team of “naked warriors” were always the first to hit the beach. He was even waiting on shore when General Douglas MacArthur made his famous “I shall return” landing.
Born in a trunk to Vaudevillian parents, as a toddler Lee literally had to sing for his supper whenever Mom and Pop hit the road. After the war he became a vital part of the Atlas space program, hob-nobbing with astronauts and rocket scientists alike, including the ex-Nazi camera hog, Werner von Braun.
This book is a compilation of Lee Kelley’s colorful war stories, many of which were told to me on his death bed. Sixteen million Americans served in World War II and “Stump” is one of the over fifteen million that are no longer with us. I miss Lee more than mere words can express and hopefully this meager attempt will help keep alive the memory of this gallant patriot.
Another amphibious landing, another devastated shoreline, more bodies drifting away with the tide… Lee “Stump” Kelley had seen enough death to last a dozen lifetimes. And up until last month he’d forced himself to shrug it all off. People died in a war. It was the nature of the beast and there was nothing he could do about it. Shedding a tear wouldn’t bring the dead back to life. But as he stood in that far corner of a once pristine beach, now sullied by the unforgiving tread of a thousand war machines, his eyes began to swell up. Staring into the last vestiges of a blood red sun, this time the hollow imbalance in the pit of his stomach just wouldn’t go away. Swallowing hard he felt as if he were adrift on a sea of shattered glass. Never before had he felt so alone, so beyond hope.
First Athos, now Porthos, two of the Three Musketeers were now gone. In the short span of a month Lee had lost his two best friends, his right and left arms. Killed before either had reached their nineteenth birthday, both had met violent and gruesome ends on two remote Philippine beaches eight thousand miles from their homeland. Twenty-eight days ago it had been Hillbilly. Yesterday it was Frenchie’s turn.
Taking another swig of tepid San Miguel, Stump plopped his tired butt into the sand. It was late in the evening on a Tuesday, October’s first in the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and forty-four. Then again it could have been a Wednesday. In the middle of an overly long war, time seemed to overlap into a never-ending string of nameless days.
The multi-colored label on the dark bottle in his hand spelled out “beer” in Tagalog, but the liquid tasted more like panther piss. A far cry from his favorite back in Ohio – Hey Mabel! Black Label! – in this case beggars couldn’t be choosey. The night before, he and his team of frogmen had “appropriated” a case of the foul smelling stuff from a detachment of British soldiers, snatching it from their tent when their backs were turned. And it would have been a shame to waste the light-fingered fruits of their labor, especially in this God-forsaken corner of the world. No matter how bad it tasted.
Lee had nothing but admiration for the Brits, but they sure were a strange lot. He could stomach most of their strange eating habits – blood pudding, spotted dick ( now there was a name you didn’t mess with ), and even bangers (a type of water sausage that had an alarming propensity to explode when cooked ), but how those Limeys could drink their beer warm was beyond him. Beer was supposed to be served ice cold, out of a frosty mug, not warm as bath water. And at this low point in his life, a life that was rapidly careening down the road to Miserable, he would have sold his soul for a long, tall, cold one. As if he had much of a soul left after all the shit he’d seen and done.
The war in the Pacific was finally turning in America’s favor, but at the moment that was little consolation to Lee. His bosom buddies were now dead. Four weeks to the day, his fellow “go-fer” Hillbilly Parsons had been blown to smithereens on the beaches of Tacloban, a once picturesque fishing village on the Gulf of Leyte. Like too many other little villages in the Philippines, it had taken the American fleet all of a day to reduce the place to rubble.
Six foot two and strong as a bull, Hillbilly had been involved in yet another night time diving operation when he was ripped apart in only eight feet of water. Barely deeper than a bathtub. One second he had been alive and kicking, looking forward to another so-called beer as he planted his last charge. And in the blink of an eye he’d been turned into a reddish cloud of chum drifting away with the current. Ten pounds of tetro is powerful stuff. Especially when it explodes a foot in front of your face. Normally stable when tetro isn’t attached to primacord, something must have gone terribly wrong. Whatever it was, it cost Hillbilly and his partner their lives. The only saving grace, they never knew what hit them.
Pursing his lips, Lee inhaled deeply through his nose. Mixed with the ever-present tang of salt air floated a hint of scorched iron and singed hair. Once again the all too familiar smell of warmed over death left a rancid tinge in the back of his throat. A second swallow of beer could not wash the sickening taste away. Nor would a third.
At least Hillbilly got his wish, thought Lee. The big galoot always said he wanted to go quick. Die with his boots on.
With a slow shake of his head Lee looked out across the bay. Then slowly scanned left towards a distant island. Just beyond where the surf began to break, a flock of seagulls was circling over the carcass of a large dead fish floating belly up in the water. It could have been a grouper, or even a shark. Maybe a blue tip. Oblivious to the wars of men, the air-borne scavengers couldn’t have cared less how many soldiers had died on this beach the day before.
To the hungry birds humans were noisy, mindless creatures, who the previous morning had turned the surf red as far as the eye could see with their infernal thundersticks. During the insanity it seemed destruction would reign supreme, that the entire island would be devastated for generations to come.
But it had taken Mother Nature less than a day to wash most of the blood and guts away. All that remained now were a few of man’s broken tanks dotting the shore line. Soon to be rusted out hulks, they stood in mute testimony to yet another of man’s follies as they slowly sank into the muck. But in her infinite wisdom Ma Nature would take care of those broken pieces of war, too. It would only take her longer. Iron always took longer than flesh. And whereas the human race had a limited amount of soldiers to sacrifice on these foreign shores, Nature had an unlimited amount of time. Such were the costly vagaries of war.